Liam Neeson and the modern masculinity crisis

Liam Neeson again plays a tough guy with a past in A Walk Among The Tombstones. James looks at the masculine thread in Neeson's films...

In A Walk Among the Tombstones, Liam Neeson plays private investigator Matthew Scudder. He’s a former NYPD cop and a recovering alcoholic with a packed deck of personal demons and a pretty tragic backstory. First impressions? He doesn’t sound like a very happy guy.

In Scott Frank’s new film – the first screen adaptation of Lawrence Block’s novel series – our lead protagonist is forcibly hired by a drug dealer (Downton Abbey‘s Dan Stevens following up his sinister turn in The Guest). Said criminal’s wife has been kidnapped and murdered, so Neeson-Scudder hits the mean streets of New York City to find the killers. This search and vengeance quest will entail lots of growling, lots of roughing up and lots of being roughed up as the P.I. encounters a grim array of thug nasties and nefarious ne’er-do-wells.

I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling beats of familiarity in this set-up. Liam Neeson playing a broken-and-beaten-down former member of the authorities? Neeson brooding and psychologically scarred by his past? Neeson going after lowlife and a woman who was taken? (Or, if you really need the emphasis, Taken.)

I’ve seen – and really enjoyed – these things before and A Walk Among The Tombstones sounds intriguing, especially if it delivers real dramatic heft and emotional power alongside the expected (inevitable) Neeson-Power. Nonetheless, its arrival and the arrival of the 6ft 4in Irish titan in movie theatres for another round of rough-housing has got me thinking deeply. 

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Specifically, I’m noting those patterns and, subsequently, have been contemplating the nature of Neeson. What do his recent roles say about him or, perhaps more pertinently, about the audience or the society that we live in? Let’s examine the filmography and see what we can find and take from it ourselves, all the while very much aware that taking something away from Liam Neeson is a very hazardous business.

(Reader warning: this column may start to feel very repetitive. You will forgive this because repetition is partly the point and because it’s all about Liam Neeson. If you don’t like it Neeson will look for you, will find you, will kill you. He has a particular set of skills that he’s acquired over a very long career – skills that make him a nightmare for people like you. Just please, for goodness sake, don’t cross Liam Neeson.)

Our main man’s last film as a lead before A Walk Among The Tombstones was Non-Stop – a high-altitude action thriller in which plane passengers face a bomb threat. Neeson plays Bill Marks, an alcoholic US federal air marshal who once worked for the NYPD before they discharged him. 

Boozy, downbeat Bill starts receiving sinister text messages with ransom demands and from there we’re clinging to our seats while Marks tries to find the mystery terrorist and save the day. As a coincidental aside, he also bumps into a Downton Abbey cast member in the form of Michelle Downey, here slightly humbler as an air hostess working coach (and putting up with a paranoid, highly-strung Liam Neeson).

Now consider Neeson’s previous collaboration with Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra – the 2011 Euro-thriller Unknown. In that movie, Lofty Liam is Dr Martin Harris. Yes, he really is Dr Martin Harris, but no one else thinks he’s Dr Martin Harris. Arriving in Berlin as Dr Martin Harris – esteemed scientific expert in town for a biotechnology summit – he ends up involved in an extreme taxicab accident, careering off a bridge into the river. (He falls into muddy waters, and that’s a visual metaphor.)

When Dr Martin Harris (Dr Martin Harris?) regains consciousness and wakes up in a hospital he discovers that his identity is gone and that, what’s more, shadowy figures are attempting to stop him re-claiming the Dr Martin Harris persona he prizes – or at least, thought he prized – so much.

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For further identity crises, see the duality of Bad Cop in The Lego Movie – a little plastic figurine who struggles to consolidate his incompatible facets, what the wider world defines him as (he’s moulded as a Bad Cop) and what he really wants to be. The same is also true for the Taken twosome, in which Bryan Mills attempts to successfully straddle long-overdue fatherhood duties and his acquired sense of self as forged over that long career in an inhumane industry (he was once a CIA operative). 

Mills has real difficulty working out who he is and I appreciate that infamous telephone rant – “What I do have are a very particular set of skills” – as not just a threat to the baddies, but as a self-affirmative mantra delivered by a man who is a little lost. As for the plots of Taken and Taken 2, here we have Neeson hunting for those who’ve nabbed his innocent loved ones and he’s wrestling with his own history as he batters his way around the Albanian underworld in Paris and Istanbul.

Of course, we can’t forget The Grey, which is the Mighty Neeson’s magnum opus. In Joe Carnahan’s poetic survival drama, our exalted icon plays John Ottway, a hunter working at an oil-drilling site in Alaska. (Observe how his characters are always hunting.) Essentially, he’s an animal murderer for hire, but there’s more to Ottway than picking off alpha predators – whether that be on the job or when his plane crashes in the wilderness. Tormented by the death of his wife, Ottway is suicidal and, failing to find comfort in the bottle or in the relative solitude of the Arctic Circle, almost surrenders completely to his despair within the first few frames.

Here, again, Neeson is playing a very confused man who is a composite of opposites. He is both toughened warrior and assured man of action by vocation and an emotional wreck on the very edge, possibly at the point of no return. He feels that the world has nothing for him and is literally clawing for existence, hellbent on the reason to live (namely, to kill the wolves that are coming for his new surrogate family). The stark, icy reality around him is juxtaposed with lyrical flashbacks of his beloved and his father, grace notes of poetry voiced by his memory before he moves in to strike at the beasts that will ravage him. 

It’s beautiful and brutal, and it’s brilliant. That’s Liam Neeson movies for you, I guess, no matter how formulaic or slight the premise and end execution may be. This fine actor never phones it in, even if the script is simply serviceable fodder for knockabout action thrills and minor variations on the established popular patterns.

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Whatever the part and its requirements – whether it be bopping Albanian gangsters, doing Jedi Master duties, channelling the heartbroken depths or saving thousands from the Holocaust – Neeson is always credible and grounds his performances in real, nuanced human feeling. But it’s not necessarily his acting ability or physical prowess that pulls cinemagoers in time and time again. Having scrutinised the evidence, I believe that Liam Neeson has become something more than just a film star – he has become a vivid mandala that expresses the condition of modern masculinity on the movie screen.

He has morphed, probably inadvertently, into the voice of a particular generation and become the screen analogue for a mass of males. Neeson is now the Everyman – a more particular and acute counterpart to Tom Hanks who I feel is the shiny, optimistic flipside of the coin. On this figurative coin Neeson exists as the troubled face of masculine humanity, and his value and significance are great.

For what it’s worth, I’d also say that the ‘Neeson as Everyman’ notion also works by extension for female viewers and diverse audiences of different ethnicities and age-brackets to a certain degree. Everyone can empathise and see shades of themselves and their own troubles in the actor’s inhabited fictional personas. Even so, Neeson stands specifically as a representation of middle-aged men and, in the tumultuous early 21st century, that section of society is in crisis. Liam Neeson’s major role is to be the embodiment of the modern masculinity crisis in movies, with bonus added beat-’em-up action for extra entertainment.

In his characters you see the old ideal of masculinity – hardy, stoic, unemotional, more liable to be thinking with his fists, mostly concerned with being solidly ‘blokeish’ and working to be the ‘breadwinner’. (Though no provider papas directly win bread. They get a payment sent by direct debit into their bank account and then they can buy bread for their family, but that strikes me as being far more boring than, say, fighting hard on the battlefield or in the deathpits for fresh-baked ciabatta.)

As the 20th century advanced onward, however, traditional masculinity found itself becoming challenged by technological change, social movements like feminism and global economic and political shifts (recessions, wars, altered societies). The new millennium has arguably upped the pace and now the question “what makes a man a man, man?” is even more confusing a proposition.

Many films explore this issue or have it simmering in the subtext and as a hook to hang on. The Expendables series, in particular, is one such franchise that’s got it as a key concern as veteran action heroes reconsider their place as older guys in a milieu that ain’t like the old days any more. They definitely make for an interesting case study, but it’s in the works of Neeson that we really get more of a deeper feel for these themes and feelings, and that’s mainly due to the actor’s profound presence and his sophisticated essaying of the Everyman.

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To define my hypothetical subject, this Everyman is a mature adult male of a certain vintage and the 21st century is potentially a very problematic and trying place to be for such a person. Traditional ideas and assumptions about masculinity still exist but they are constantly challenged. ‘Macho men’ of the old-school kind are more likely to feel affronted or be offended by this era of technological advancement, cosmopolitan postmodern culture, altered geopolitical and social circumstances and all the assorted other changes that I’ve already alluded to.

If repeat viewings of Fight Club can’t soothe the testosterone-fuelled frustrations of such beleaguered blokes, they can definitely identify with Neeson who is always an instantly likable, relatable and understandable figure – even when he’s in a more outlandish, otherworldly role and hamming it up as, say, a chief ninja terrorist, an Olympian god or a Lego minifigure. 

The subconscious doubts and fears of so many men are represented on screen and embodied by the actor across his diverse performances. Let’s take a look at some of those fears, starting with the sense of impotence and existential insecurity that’s a natural symptom of most male mid-life crises (and every Lego figurine not happy with the face it’s been given). It’s there most explicitly in The Grey’s John Ottway – a man who believes that he has no reason to exist anymore. Unknown and Non-Stop are also good examples, seeing as they’re both thriller narratives anchored around a Neeson protagonist desperate to prove himself as a real person in spite of the near-unanimous doubt and disbelief of all around him.

Even his cameo as a ghostly History Channel newsreader in Anchorman 2 hits on that dread and operates as a subliminal shout of “Oh, you may see me as something of irrelevant relic that belongs in the past but, please, don’t forget about me! Acknowledge and respect me!” For all fellas who feel that the world has turned and left them behind, Liam Neeson characters are there as kindred spirits sharing your pain and/or bemusement.

Struggling to keep up with technology? There’s Bill Marks in Non-Stop grappling with text messages, hackers and computer wizards while he tries to level-up in cellphone tech savvy and deactivate a bomb on a transatlantic flight. Bryan Mills’ buying of an outdated karaoke machine-cum-CD player for his daughter in Taken is also pertinent, and that brings us to another massive middle age man concern – fatherhood.

Gaze across the filmography and you’ll swiftly appreciate that, by Zeus, this guy has played a heck of a lot of patriarchal figures. Quandaries and dilemmas that trouble a great many dads are dealt with by Neeson’s perturbed and pressured papas, even if the domestic affairs are spiced up with a bit more high-adrenaline action and threat than ‘the norm’.

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Taken is exemplary, for in Bryan Mills we get an out-of-touch absent father who’s desperate to connect with his daughter and ex-wife and redeem himself as a family man. It’s arguably too late, however, and he’s got to consolidate it his other innate facets (lethal special ops background and special skillset) and work out what it means to be a father right now as opposed to what he assumed or imagined. Realising that his little Kim is growing up into a young woman comes a heavy blow to a bloke whose instincts were to buy her teeny-bop karaoke machines and go far-beyond-overprotective in order to be the ‘Best Dad in the World’.

Mills’s efforts are ham-fisted, reactionary and clumsy but, to be fair, he’s a work-in-progress who ain’t doing too bad and his claustrophobic paranoia and family-unfriendly talents prove invaluable every time Kim and Lennie Mills get taken. Fatherly frustrations and anxieties around children, responsibilities and respected status are also evident in his portrayal of Zeus in Clash Of The Titans and Wrath Of The Titans and in his turn as Admiral Shane in Battleship (he disapproves of his daughter hanging around with that reprobate Taylor Kitsch). Count Neeson’s vocal work as the human-hating underwater sorcerer Fujimoto in the English-language dub of Studio Ghibli’s Ponyo and you’ve got yet another example.

Furthermore, Neeson is doing emotional daddy duties in Love Actually, Kingdom Of Heaven and Gangs Of New York, and functioning in similar fashion even in the films where he isn’t actually playing a biological father. Note all the parts where the monolithic Irishman inhabits the persona of an outsider who takes on a fatherly or mentor role in an improvised surrogate family set-up order to reap the paternal rewards and impress some patriarchal authority on needy younger folk – namely, Batman Begins, The Phantom Menace, The A-Team and The Grey to catalogue a few.

Survey the Neesonscape and you’ll see the truth – he is the totemic masculinity crisis manifest on the movie screen. In his fictional personas he is the vital expression of a certain demographic – men of a certain vintage and nature – made flesh and he embodies all the assorted insecurities, issues, repressed emotions and challenges surrounding them in this strange modern era.

Neeson is this generation’s Charles Bronson or John Wayne, except unlike ‘The Duke’ he can actually act and is a far more likable, empathetic and ‘real’ human being. From a practical standpoint we need him to batter the wolves and bad guys when they come a-knockin’. Psychologically, he’s even more of an essential figure and we need him to be the solid, deep representation of masculinity in crisis.

I suppose that makes it a bit better for all the mature men who feel weak and anxious in the face of it all. It’s comforting to think that Liam Neeson is you and that you are Liam Neeson. And then he knocks out another few hoodlums and everyone’s happy (except Neeson, who will not be happy but will be brooding and growling, as per usual, and we really like him that way).

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James Clayton is not a middle-aged man in crisis but he can still empathise with Liam Neeson. I mean, we all suffered Jar Jar Binks together, right? You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter

You can read James’s last column here.